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Posts published in “Courthouse Project”

Reflections: Does courts coverage do more harm than good?

It’s the fourth week of school and I’m crying in my editor’s well-lit office. 

It’s nothing serious — I cry frustratingly easily, often about things that I’m mildly stressed about or invested in.  It’s involuntary and annoying. 

I’m crying in my editor’s office, across his honey-colored desk, because I want to leave the names out of my story, and he wants to leave them in.

I wrote the story about something I watched happen in traffic court, a moment of simultaneous justice and mercy in a place where seemingly mundane rules can transform people’s lives.

The judge sentenced a 30-year-old man to 10 days in jail for driving while impaired with a revoked license, despite his attorney’s plea that he’d been coping with the aftermath of his mother’s unexpected death. While security personnel sorted the man’s belongings and took him to jail, a college student read an essay about traffic school to the court. The judge dismissed the 19-year-old’s speeding and marijuana charges and sent him back into freedom with a “Good luck to you, sir.”

Stephen Buckley, my editor, gave me this working definition of journalism in a moment of crisis the week before: true stories for the public good. I scrawled it on an empty page in my notebook three pages before the traffic court scene went down.

If it were up to me, despite the 11 hours I spent in court this week, I’d have written nothing at all, I tell Buckley. I don’t think this story does much for the public good. I ask him if we can leave the piece unpublished or take the names out, and he says that’s not up to us to decide. Everything that happened in that courtroom is already public information. 

This point I still disagree with. Just because information is public doesn’t mean it’s ethical to amplify. I believe that in general, it might be a good thing that you have to visit the courthouse or pay a website to find a person’s dismissed charges. 

However, Buckley gently explains other important ways my thinking is wrong. I’m paraphrasing my impressions here because I didn’t take notes or record.

This is why you have to try to talk to people and not be a chicken, he says. (He doesn’t say the chicken part.) They might be completely game to talk to you for an article and you’re missing out on an important perspective — theirs. 

Also, you’re assuming readers will think the worst of the people in your story, he says. Have a little more faith in them. You actually paint this teenager in a good light. People won’t judge him just because the police charged him.

But because I’m guilty of skimming news articles and missing humanizing details, I’m skeptical of the reader.

It’s an easier and more straightforward process to clear your name in the courts than in the newsroom, at least in Durham. I think this might be because what the court sees as punishment, journalists see as information. Also, when you’re writing an article due at 11:59 p.m., it can be hard to imagine what it’ll be like for someone to have that story still tied to their name on Google in 30 years. 

Some newspapers deny unpublishing requests on principle, and some use nebulous criteria. Some will add an addendum about dropped charges but not alter an article’s original text. Editors often decide on a case-by-case basis.

In North Carolina’s courts, you fill out a form and pay $175 to clear your record of prior charges and convictions. There are how-to websites. You can get free legal assistance. The DA’s office itself has petitioned the court to do this for juveniles prosecuted as adults. 

Not everyone is eligible, but the 2020 Second Chance Act allows people a new legal start. They can erase from their record non-violent misdemeanors, dismissed or not guilty charges, and certain juvenile convictions.

“In a lower level case, having your arrest and your mugshot easily called up on Google anytime someone searches your name for the rest of your life might actually be a stiffer consequence than the crime itself,” said Sarah Willets, spokesperson for Durham’s District Attorney’s office. “That could follow you for far longer than any sentence that the law would allow.”

I went to Willets looking for expertise on the collateral damage of courthouse coverage because she’s had a foot in both journalism and prosecution. She worked as a crime reporter for years and now she manages communications in an office where prosecutors typically can’t comment to journalists.

Willets thinks the press play a vital role in the courts. But, she said, they could play that role more ethically.

“Are you going to follow through when you report on an arrest or a pending case? Are you going to follow through and say what the outcome was?” she said. “And if not, if it’s not worth following that case to the end, is there really a public interest in covering it?”

Consider whether you’re writing for the public good or just because a story’s kind of interesting, and someone might want to read about it, Willets said. I believe my story fell into the second category, even though I was hoping to write something of the first.

Willets told me she fought with her editors too. She wrote about a reentry program and one man’s experience leaving prison for her last story at Indy Week. She wanted to leave the man’s crime out, her editor wanted to leave it in. 

The city — Durham — had decided he should move on, she said. “And who are we to stand in the way of that?”

Her editor countered: that’s a big thing to conceal from readers. The editor won — the man’s conviction sits in the fifth paragraph of the published story online.

I left Buckley’s office thinking he too had won, that we would publish the story, and with names. But to spare me the stress, and because the primary goal of this class is to learn, not just to publish, he told me later that we wouldn’t.

Before I keep complaining about being a “student journalist” who doesn’t seem to want to publish any journalism, I’ll flash us back to last fall. I was among a crowd of protestors in head-to-toe black that set off fireworks outside Durham County jail. 

Earlier in their march they’d chanted, “News is cops, news is cops,” and blocked TV cameras with umbrellas. I’d chanted along the rest of the night, but in those moments I hesitated, not sure what to say.

I was in a news writing class at the time and thought I wanted to become an audio journalist.

Four days later I was back in journalism class and still thinking about it. If news is cops, should I be writing news? Can journalism avoid this?

A friend who was there that night graciously gave me some of their time on the phone. They told me a local TV station had posted mugshots of their friends arrested for protesting earlier that summer. Then those friends got doxxed, which means readers found and published their private information online, a particularly vicious revenge tactic. The news cost them.

My traffic court article was a different situation entirely. Buckley told me so while I objected, and he was right. But I do think about how what my peers and I write can reinforce the judgments of a broken criminal legal system.

How do we balance readers’ trust with future costs to our sources, costs exacerbated by internet longevity? Is every omission an effort to conceal? How do we minimize harm while maximizing the public good?

Willets gave me a few recommendations. In essence, she said, look for consent and context. Talk to the parties involved — especially victims — and make them understand how this story could follow them, she said. Situate the criminal case within the social issues forcing people to come to court, like lack of mental health care or community investment. Study the research around crime. Stick around and follow through.

This advice is hard to follow on deadline. Court cases can take forever: even the simple ones may drag on for months or years. 

Sarah Koenig and Emmanuel Dzotsi spent a year reporting Serial season 3, the podcast that inspired the creation of the 9th Street Journal’s courthouse reporting project. Each vignette they present from the Cleveland courthouse consists of months of interviews. Our vignettes, or “Courthouse Moments,” pan out over one week.

Maybe that’s where I land: I’m unwilling to do quick journalism, even if that means I won’t be employable in this field. Maybe one day newspapers will make different decisions about whether their quick news should last forever in its original form; maybe we’ll make unpublishing guidelines more transparent to the people we report on. 

I don’t think I’ve come to any solid answers. I have a feeling I’ll squirm closer to a conclusion in the coming years, talking through these conflicts with editors (and unfortunately probably after shedding a few more tears).

Photo Above: Lilly Clark, by Josie Vonk — The 9th Street Journal

In God they trust: A courthouse prayer group offers a mindful break

In the Durham County Courthouse, a courtroom is a place for trials, arguments and rulings. It’s where attorneys lose cases and defendants receive jail time, a place where people debate, cry and curse. But on Wednesdays from 12:45 to 1:00pm, one courtroom on the second floor becomes a sanctuary for the courthouse staff prayer group. 

To its members, the group is a safe haven – a mindful escape from the daily chaos of their jobs. 

Chief District Court Judge Pat Evans joined 15 years ago as an attorney. Today, she attends every meeting and leads most prayers. 

“It’s like our anchor,” Evans says. “In courts, we see a lot of stuff. It’s very traumatizing, but we always know that we can come here and be rejuvenated to finish the rest of the week.”

In court, God’s name is thrown around as a matter of procedure. Witnesses must place their hand on a Bible before they testify. They swear by God “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” but rarely with any religious conviction. The prayer group wants to put meaning back into these words.

It was started in 2001 by now-retired clerk Darlene Pate to unite the courthouse staff. Pate wanted to remind them of their shared faith and give them a space to reflect. 

Each week during their lunch breaks, judges, magistrates, translators and prosecutors borrow the courtroom of Clerk Archie Smith III —a judge and chief administrator in the courthouse— to host their prayer session.

One Wednesday, District Court Judge Doretta Walker comes from criminal court. She just finished ruling on an assault case. 

Courthouse interpreter, Maria Owens, comes from civil court. She spent the last half hour translating for a couple’s custody hearing. She mediated as a mother and father fought over their infant son.

Evans comes from traffic court, where she had a full docket. Her afternoon promises more of the same.

After half a dozen other staff members enter, they arrange the desk chairs from the lawyer’s tables into a rough semi-circle. Sometimes, they turn off the fluorescent lights, letting the afternoon sun spill through the windows. 

These adjustments convert the courtroom from a place of tension to a peaceful oasis.

A small printed packet guides the group. It provides a theme, a piece of scripture and a paragraph or two of insight. 

On October 6th, the theme is “helping one another.” 

“Encourage one another and build each other up… always strive to do what is good for each other,” one member reads. 

Then she asks each participant what they want to pray for.

Darrin Corbin, a District Court magistrate, mentions his stepfather who suffers from congestive heart failure. While Corbin is in this prayer meeting, his stepfather is in a hospital in New York.

Owens would like to pray for her mother-in-law, who recently suffered an aneurysm.

Evans echoes those prayers and adds one of her own: that people will vote in Durham’s municipal primary election. Then she leads a prayer. 

Eyes close and heads bow. Some people rock back and forth in their chairs. They nod, whisper prayers of their own, and hum on beat with the judge’s voice. Every few words, someone offers “yes, Lord” or “thank you, God.” 

When the session ends, participants linger, joking and catching up. They comment on each other’s outfits, especially those of the judges, who are rarely seen sans long black robes. 

“Love y’all,” they say while parting ways. 

In two decades, the group has almost never missed a meeting. It’s lasted through a building move, multiple retirements and now, a pandemic.

As COVID-19 raged through North Carolina, the courthouse stayed open, so the group continued to gather there. Numbers dwindled, but those who couldn’t come sent in prayers from home. Those who did come practiced social distancing. At each meeting’s end, in lieu of parting hugs, they took turns tapping elbows. 

“We never considered not meeting,” Evans says. “We didn’t sit up next to each other, but it was even more important that we gathered and prayed and sought God’s protection together.”

The prayer group is not publicized around the courthouse, but people from all departments show up. Though it is a Christian prayer group, all are welcome. And by gathering during their personal lunch breaks, Evans says, the group avoids any conflict between church and state.

On some weeks, the clerk’s courtroom is full, with a dozen staff filling the gallery. On others, three people may meet. 

Brittany Clinton, an assistant district attorney, started coming to sessions a few months ago. Like most new members, she heard about the group “through the grapevine.” 

In a job where uncertainty is guaranteed, the prayer group gives Clinton something to rely on.

“After we finish each session, it’s like a breath of fresh air,” she says. “It makes me feel a little bit lighter, like I can go ahead and make it through the rest of the day.”

Walker has attended prayer group meetings for over five years. She’s saved every printed packet, storing them in a drawer at home. 

“I like to pull them out and read them from time to time,” she says. “I can look back and see that my prayers have been answered.”

Evans has had her prayers answered too. For one, her husband, whose medical issues heighten the risks of severe illness from COVID-19, has stayed healthy throughout the pandemic. 

But a prompt in a recent meeting reminded her of one prayer she’s still waiting to see answered. “Think of something you’ve given up on,” it read. “Ask God to show you how He’s still working on it.”

For the past 30 years, Evans has prayed for the violence in Durham to stop. 

“Not to be curtailed, but to totally stop,” she says. 

Her criminal court docket is too long.

In 2020, a record-breaking 318 people got shot in Durham County, nearly a 70% increase from 2019. Though in line with gun violence trends globally, these numbers are hard for Durhamites to hear, especially those who work in the courthouse. 

In this meeting, Evans prays for something to change. After a moment of silent reflection, she unclasps her hands and stands up. Then she turns to Clinton, gives her a light elbow tap, and together they walk into the hallway.

“See you next week,” Evans says. 

 It’s not a question. It’s a promise.

At the top: A group of courthouse staffers meet in their Wednesday prayer group. Chief District Court Judge Pat Evans, seated in the back, often leads the group. Photo by Josie Vonk, The 9th Street Journal.

A Courthouse Moment: ‘It’s exhausting.’

Michael Ray Johnson, 34, has been waiting in jail for more than 200 days. Three years have passed since he broke into a woman’s home and assaulted her and her daughter, the mother of his son.

In this bond hearing on a recent Tuesday, Johnson sits in an airy Durham County courtroom, wearing long cream-colored sleeves beneath his orange uniform. He has almond-colored skin and cropped hair. He stares coolly ahead and sits mostly motionless and silent.  

Small groups of courthouse staff watch and whisper to each other, but the benches for people who aren’t paid to be here—defendants or victims or family—are mostly empty. 

After three years of delays, Crystal Smith, the mother of Johnson’s young son, doesn’t show up in court. And Lisa Fowler, the boy’s grandmother, who was once adamant about pursuing charges, isn’t there either. She is tired of waiting.

Fowler  “just says she doesn’t care what happens. It’s exhausting,” Assistant District Attorney Brooks Stone tells Judge Michael O’Foghludha. “She feels like her input is irrelevant, and it’s taking so long. This happened back in 2018.”

Since then, much has changed in Durham’s courthouse. Durham elected a new district attorney. A slew of prosecutors left; new ones picked up the stacks of files they left behind. The delays of a pandemic and busy DA’s office now keep worn-out victims and defendants alike in greater limbo than before.

According to the state, Johnson broke into Fowler’s home in June 2018. He entered through a window and tussled with Fowler and with Smith. He then ran outside, beat on Fowler’s Toyota Solara with a baseball bat, and then drove off. 

Fowler, her daughter and then-three-year-old grandson followed him outside. As Johnson drove off, neighbors heard gunshots. Police think Johnson was firing at Fowler, her daughter and grandchild. 

Smith dialed 911 that night. Now that she’s not interested in pressing charges, that call stands as her only testimony. 

The absence of Smith and Fowler could spell the end of Johnson’s case. Prosecutors don’t represent victims, but they do rely on them to testify. Domestic violence victims, in particular, are often uncooperative, Stone says. Johnson appeared in court on assault charges against Smith before, in 2017 and 2018, but the DA dismissed those charges because she didn’t show. 

Johnson’s files were swapped twice between DA’s. They first reassigned his case in September 2019, after six months without any hearings. His case was delayed again when the pandemic forced the courthouse to close for months. Finally, after 10 months without an appearance, Stone picked up his cases in July 2020, and Johnson got a new court date.

“His matters kind of got lost in the system,” Idrissa Smith, Johnson’s public defender, tells O’Foghludha. The lawyer gestures with his left hand and rests his right hand on Johnson’s shoulder. 

While Johnson’s case was postponed, he was free. But shortly after his case returned to the calendar, he missed a court date, and the police issued a warrant for his arrest. They picked Johnson up in February for illegal possession of drugs and jailed him for his failure to appear in court. He has remained in jail since.

The DA’s office postponed Johnson’s last three District Court dates for the drug charges without Johnson in the room, Idrissa Smith says. Durham prosecutors started automatically postponing cases to keep courtrooms uncrowded and prevent the spread of COVID-19. But they’re not supposed to do this to defendants in jail, Johnson’s attorney says. 

“At this point, keeping him in custody when you don’t really have witnesses is pre-trial punishment,” Idrissa Smith tells the court.

Because of the delays, the defense attorney hasn’t looked at the state’s evidence against Johnson in the drug case. 

 “I, as his defense attorney, have no clue what’s going on,” Idrissa Smith says, his voice echoing  through the room. He asks the judge to release Johnson and put him on house arrest, but the judge denies the motion. 

The state keeps Johnson in jail for another two weeks until Oct. 5, when he agrees to a plea deal. He will get credit for his time in jail and serve 15 to 27 months total for eight felonies. The waiting — for everyone — is over.

 

A Courthouse Moment: ‘Get your bearings together’

Ralph Pilgrim slumped into a seat next to his public defender at the front of Courtroom 5A. With an elbow on the arm of the chair, propping up his head, he tossed his navy blue cap aside, leaned back and closed his eyes. Pilgrim, 61, has been here before.

He was convicted in September 2019 for assaulting a woman. Instead of the maximum sentence of 150 days in jail, he received supervised probation for 24 months. After a probation violation in March 2020, his sentence was extended for 12 months. 

But on a Wednesday in late September, he was back in Durham County District Court for allegedly violating his probation again. Now, he faced possible jail time. 

In an ideal situation, a judge’s ruling definitively resolves a case. The verdict is simple and lasting. But sometimes, a judge’s adjudication doesn’t mean a case is over. Instead, a 24-month probation can turn into 36, which can turn into a jail sentence. Another series of court appearances begins, each visit newly unfamiliar and complicated, regardless of how many times one has entered a courtroom before. 

Judge Shamieka Rhinehart called the District Attorney’s office to introduce the case. Pilgrim stood up, towering over his public defender, Nicole Edwards. He was bald and heavyset, with thin wire-frame glasses. He wore acid-wash jeans and a gray graphic t-shirt that read “Good Vibes.”

In a matching tan suit and skirt, District Attorney intern Rachel Tucker introduced the case to Rhinehart. Her voice trembled, and she stopped in the middle of sentences to look down at her papers. 

Tucker alleged that Pilgrim left his last known address and intentionally did not inform his probation officer, Tomeka Hodges. 

She called Hodges to the stand. Hodges wore a gun in her holster and her badge on a chain around her neck. She recounted that Pilgrim missed his appointment with her on July 9. She went to his home on July 18 to check on him, learned that he no longer lived there, and reported him as absconding — the legal term for Pilgrim’s probation violation.

Then Edwards questioned Hodges: Had she looked into where Pilgrim worked? Had she contacted relatives in his file? Edwards, a petite woman with short blonde hair, spoke so closely to the microphone that when she asked the judge for a moment to collect her thoughts, her shallow breaths echoed in the near-empty room. 

Edwards contended that Pilgrim left his boarding house due to theft. When he found out that he had been charged with a probation violation, he turned himself in on July 30, according to Edwards.

“That’s wrong,” Hodges interjected. “I looked it up, and he didn’t.”

“So you’re suggesting the date on [his paperwork] is incorrect?” Edwards said.

“He possibly dated it wrong. He turned himself in on the 2nd,” Hodges said, as Pilgrim shook his head.

Edwards called Pilgrim to the stand. As he raised his hand to take the oath, he tripped on the wheels of a chair and stumbled. A chorus of “woah” rose from the lawyers and court staff. 

“Hold on there, get your bearings together,” Rhinehart said with a chuckle.  “We don’t need an accident.” 

Pilgrim sat down and cleared his throat, as Edwards asked him to introduce himself to the court. When he spoke into the microphone, the volume startled him and he recoiled. Edwards repeated the question and tried again. 

As he answered, Pilgrim often mumbled. He seemed unsure of himself and he rambled. Twice, Edwards cut him off. 

“Absconding to me is like, I’m running. Like I’m not letting anyone know, not even my mom, my sister, my brother, nobody knows,” he said. “That is definitely absconding, or what I think it is.” 

He said that he turned himself in on July 30. Then, he reconsidered, searching Rhinehart’s face as he spoke.

“I think it was the 30th,” Pilgrim said. “[Hodges] said it was the 2nd, but I don’t think it was the 2nd. It could have been, but I don’t think it was. I think it was on the 30th.” 

After Tucker questioned him, Edwards began her closing statement: “I would contend that Mr. Pilgrim did not willfully abscond his probation. To be an absconder you must—” 

A faint ring tone of Soulja Boy’s “Kiss Me Thru The Phone” interrupted her. Pilgrim sheepishly dug through his pockets and pulled out a red phone. The deputy walked over, silenced it, and placed it by the clerk’s desk. 

Rhinehart rubbed her eyes, and then her temples. Nearly an hour had passed. Because Pilgrim kept in contact with Hodges after he turned himself in, Rhinehart kept him on probation.

But her ruling still didn’t end the case: she ordered a check in for Pilgrim in late November. He will return to court again. 

 

A Courthouse Moment: ‘I love where I stay.’

It’s a Monday morning in Durham County’s eviction court, and Joseph McMoil’s home of four years is on the line. 

McMoil, a stout 51-year-old man, shuffles to the witness stand. Dressed in a faded navy-blue T-shirt and old jeans, he settles into a swivel chair and gazes out at the smattering of people in the courtroom. 

“Mr. McMoil, what do you want me to consider as it relates to your case?” Judge Shamieka Rhinehart asks. 

For eviction cases in North Carolina, defendants are not guaranteed counsel, so McMoil represents, and testifies for, himself. 

Um … um … the fact that the times that I missed the rent,” McMoil mutters into the microphone. “During that time, I wasn’t receiving as much of a gross amount of money as I usually do. Because of my work.” 

When McMoil’s employer, a retirement home in Durham, reduced his hours early on in the pandemic, his income shrank to $1,800 a month, according to court documents. From April to September 2020, he couldn’t pay the $868 monthly rent for his apartment on Campus Walk Avenue. 

Though McMoil has paid his monthly rent since September 2020, he still owes $10,104.36 in accumulated rent and late fees, according to court documents.

Morreene LLC, the company that owns the apartment, wants an order for possession of the property. 

McMoil’s plight isn’t unique. With the pandemic causing layoffs and diminished hours throughout Durham County, many tenants have struggled to pay rent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium ended in late August, meaning many more Durham residents could face eviction in the coming months. 

Durham Social Services  (DSS) offers rental assistance, and Legal Aid, a nonprofit law firm, helps residents navigate the court system. But eligibility for rental assistance depends on earnings: residents can qualify only if they make less than 80% of the county’s Area Median Income, which is $48,400.  

McMoil says he doesn’t qualify now that his income has returned to pre-pandemic levels. 

“Have you thought about applying for any of the [COVID-19] assistance that’s available?” asks Charles Carpenter, a tall, thin attorney representing Morreene LLC. 

“I’ve called all those numbers,” McMoil says, exasperated. “I’ve tried, yes. They are looking into what I make presently and [the fact] that I’m doing well now.” 

Carpenter pauses. “But you do acknowledge that there still are a number of months of rent that remain unpaid?” 

Yes,” McMoil says. “I’ve stayed at this place for a long time. Before [COVID-19], I paid every time. I was a good outstanding resident.”

“We don’t doubt that, Mr. McMoil,” Carpenter says. His shoulders droop. He appears to hold no enthusiasm for evicting McMoil.  

“I was a very good resident before this happened,” McMoil says, his voice growing desperate. “So if you make it where I pay a little extra and catch up or come to an agreement where I can improve it, I would very much like to stay. I love where I stay.”

A long silence hangs over the courtroom. Rhinehart glances back and forth between Carpenter and McMoil. 

Anybody want to be heard?” she says, her chin resting on her hand, exhaustion in her voice. 

Just briefly, Your Honor,” Carpenter says. “We certainly feel for Mr. McMoil. I will point out, to his benefit, that when we proceed, that doesn’t cut off his avenue of discussion with us about the possibility of working something out.” 

Suddenly, the mood in the courtroom shifts. Despite McMoil’s testimony about his failed attempts to qualify for DSS rental assistance, Rhinehart sits up in her seat and asks a lawyer to find the phone number for the program. Various attorneys talk over one another, trying to find the contact information. 

“Mr. McMoil, we’re trying to get you some help, OK?” the judge calls out amid the hubbub.

When the commotion dies down, Rhinehart issues her judgment: “Mr. McMoil, it is unfortunate that I have to grant possession to the claimant. They met their burden.” 

“However,” she quickly adds, “you did hear Mr. Carpenter state that although I have entered a judgment, that they may still be willing to work with you.” 

Judge Rhinehart recommends that McMoil go immediately to the third floor to find DSS representatives and assigns someone to escort him there. 

McMoil walks slowly down the aisle, a gloomy look on his face. He has lost his home for now, but maybe there’s still a chance to save it. 

 

A Courthouse Moment: ‘Say his name.’

Traffic court is full. People sit chin in hand, eyelids heavy. Some stomp out of the courtroom, then return a few minutes later. Others grimace, checking their watches and rolling their eyes. And some are not so silent: “What the f—, bruh. I got places to be.” 

It is a recent Wednesday at the Durham County Courthouse, and even Judge Pat Evans wants to get a move on. She sits at the bench in her robe with her long black hair, gray at the roots, pulled tight in a ponytail. She sticks to a script: call a name, hear a case, make a ruling, repeat. 

The defendants don’t stick to the same script. They bring the wrong papers, they go to the wrong place, and they come late, or not at all.

Of those who make it, most accept blame for their tickets, pay a fine, and get out. Few contest their citations, and fewer win.

On this day, Anthony Rashad Floyd chose to be one of the few. And soon, the courtroom would understand why.

Floyd, a Durham resident, arrives at court on time in a yellow polo shirt, black jeans and loafers. He appears to be in his 40s. As he waits in the gallery, yellow light reflects off his diamond earrings.

Three months ago, Floyd was driving down route 70 on his way to JJ Fish & Chicken in Durham for an early dinner. It was 5 p.m. and there was heavy traffic. “Bumper to bumper,” he said. 

On this much, Floyd and the deputy who cited him agree. Beyond that, their stories conflict.

On the stand, Floyd says when his turn came, he put on his blinker and moved into the center lane. Then he says he decided he could wait to eat, so he signaled and merged back out to head home. That’s when Deputy T. Hatch pulled him over. 

“You gotta be kidding,” says a voice in the courtroom as Floyd tells his story. “Can’t believe he took this to trial.”

Center lane violations rarely make it to court. Most people prefer a small fine to a morning in traffic court. Floyd is not most people. 

“It’s about principle,” Floyd said in an interview. “I didn’t do anything wrong, and I am not gonna let an officer take advantage of me like I know they do.”

In May 2020, Floyd’s first cousin was murdered in a Minneapolis street by a police officer who pinned him to the ground for more than nine and a half minutes until he stopped breathing. This cousin’s name was George Floyd.

When Anthony Floyd announces this to the court, those listening in the gallery don’t believe him. Some laugh.

“Yeah, right,” says a voice in the back.

Others remain quiet, unsure how to react. 

Anthony says that he and George were “tight.” After George’s death, Anthony went to marches with family and yelled “say his name” with a fist in the air. He has photos of himself the day before the funeral standing with George’s attorney, Al Sharpton, and Joe Biden. 

He’s still in disbelief about his cousin’s death. He’s also more uneasy around police. When Hatch pulled him over, Floyd’s face got hot. He didn’t know why he was being stopped. Hatch told him he didn’t signal when he switched lanes. Floyd replied that he did, and he would fight this in court.

“That’s your right,” Hatch said before returning to his patrol car. 

Floyd knows his rights.

Aside from a speeding ticket at 16, Floyd’s never been in trouble with the law.

“I was on point with everything,” he said in court. “So as far as being behind the wheel, I made sure that at all times, especially since what happened to my cousin, that I follow all the rules. That’s how I know for a fact I used my turn signal. The dashcam footage will show that. Where is the dashcam footage?”

He asks this question 12 times in court. No one gives a clear answer. 

“That’s a whole process,” Hatch says.

At George Floyd’s trial, video was a star witness. Jurors watched film from cell phones, body cams, dash cams, and surveillance cams. Video footage brought justice for George. Anthony wants it to do the same for him, but Hatch doesn’t want to deal with the “process.” It seems that Evans doesn’t either.

Once Hatch and Anthony are done testifying, she rules. 

“Your cousin has nothing to do with this matter,” she says. “The citation stands.”

Anthony stays still for a moment. He turns to look at the people in the gallery behind him, but they avoid eye contact. He looks back at the judge, but she’s moved on. 

When Anthony stands and heads out of the courtroom, people turn their heads to watch him leave. He walks down the hall outside alone, mumbling to himself. 

He talks about the dash cam footage. He wonders if he needs to come back to court. He realizes he forgot to mention the van in front of him that did the same thing. He doesn’t know if he owes or what he owes or how to pay. 

He says he does know he did nothing wrong. He knows that he fought for justice. 

“And it felt good.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story said that Anthony Rashad Floyd met Joe Biden at George Floyd’s funeral.  They actually met the day before the funeral, which Biden did not attend in person.

A Courthouse Moment: ‘This is not a swastika. This is the opposite.’

 

Judge Michael O’Foghludha tried to calm the defendant who wore the mask with the backwards swastika.

“Don’t get upset,” the judge said in soothing tones, as they talked over each other. “Don’t get upset. Nothing bad will happen unless you get upset.”

“I hope President Trump come back in power, to change all that’s happening here to our advantage,” the defendant, Murphy Stephens Wamala, replied.

Among the courtroom’s few onlookers, two public defenders and three men in handcuffs and orange jumpsuits all stared with interest.

Courthouses are full of characters — the inveterate case watcher; the wily, enigmatic defendant; the salt-of-the-earth judge. But even by Durham County Courthouse standards, Wamala was among the most disturbing of those who made an appearance on Sept. 21. 

Wamala, 52, is Black, but he claims that “there was no slavery” and that “Hitler helped build this country.”

He was in court for a parole violation. On Sept. 18, after he failed to show up to a scheduled hearing, police arrested him and “beat my ass almost to death,” he said in an interview. 

Three days later, he came to court for the hearing to declare what kind of legal representation he’d have.

Dressed in a camouflage hunting jacket and matching pants, Wamala arrived for his hearing just before 10 o’clock. In the vestibule between Courtroom 7D and the hallway, he spoke to a deputy for several minutes.

“[The deputy] asked, ‘What are you here for? What’s your name?’” said Wamala, who installs and maintains automatic car washes for a living. “I said, ‘What does that have to do with you?’”

The deputy told Wamala to wait in the hall, where he remained for over an hour.

Wamala’s probation violation came during the two years of freedom he’s been granted before serving a 12- to 24-month prison sentence. This sentence stems from a July 2020 incident in which Wamala struck and injured another driver, then drove away – all while his license was suspended.

Wamala’s rap sheet is full of other traffic violations. He’s received two driving while impaired (DWI) convictions: one in Chatham County in 2012 and one in Durham County in 2019. He pleaded guilty in 2012 to driving with a revoked license. And he was found responsible in 2018 for driving with an expired license and running a stop sign.

Wamala has also had numerous traffic charges dismissed in Durham County, including two DWI charges, two charges of driving with an altered tag or vehicle registration, and one charge each of driving without insurance, registration or a valid license. All since 2012.

 But why did Wamala choose to Sharpie a swastika onto his white facemask before coming to court? He laughed when asked.

“This is not a swastika,” he said. “This is the opposite.” 

A counterclockwise swastika, he explained, was a Roman symbol for freedom. He likes displaying it so that he can see how many people are ignorant about the difference between this version and a clockwise swastika.

Even so, Wamala — whose parents are from Uganda and Nigeria and who grew up in Sweden — expressed respect for Adolf Hitler and defended the Holocaust. While waiting in the hall, Wamala also offered other political views at length and with little prompting. He applauded those who stormed the U.S. Capitol in January, sang the praises of British imperialism, and called the “American Negro” corrupt and violent. Most of his opinions defied historical facts. 

Wamala, who spoke in a loud voice,  threw his whole body into his speech — once sliding to the far side of the hallway bench to illustrate a point, and another time pulling up a sleeve to show injuries allegedly left by police officers. He ping-ponged from topic to topic, talking almost nonstop.

One rare silence fell when Wamala spent several seconds watching a woman walk past on her way to court. Dressed in unassuming street clothes – skinny jeans and a T-shirt – she returned his stare.

At another point, Wamala also gave a friendly greeting to a passing man, who nodded back.

The deputy called Wamala into the courtroom around 11:15 a.m. He entered and stood at the center of the room, facing Judge O’Foghludha with his hands behind his back. An air of curiosity and caution hung in the room.

“Is there anything I have to say to the court?” Wamala said.

The judge informed him he just needed to decide on his legal representation. He asked if Wamala wanted Dan Meier, a public defender, to represent him.

“Probably,” Wamala said. 

The deputy approached Wamala with a clipboard holding a form, and Wamala sat down to fill it out with his help. After a few minutes, the two retreated to the vestibule. 

They stood facing each other, looking at the forms: the man in the reversed swastika face mask, toe-to-toe with justice.

 

A Courthouse Moment: ‘I used to be your neighbor?’

Outside the closed doors of Courtroom 6A one recent Tuesday morning, 24 potential jurors waited in a line, single file. They shared anxious glances with the people in front of and behind them as they fiddled with straps on their purses and messenger bags. 

When a clerk thrust the doors open at 10:30 a.m., the jurors shuffled in. One man in a gray-and- cream striped button-down shirt walked with a limp. Another woman wearing a bright floral shirt held a cane in one hand and a book in the other. None seemed eager to enter. 

Jury selection is a meticulous, tedious and, at times, impersonal process — strangers are brought together in the Durham County Courthouse and, one by one, quickly questioned about their life experiences as lawyers try to decide whether they will be fair and impartial. 

But, as soon became clear on this day, this same questioning can also be tricky when jurors and attorneys are all members of the same community. Sometimes, the process can even reveal unexpected connections.

Inside the courtroom, the group sat socially distanced — six in the jury box, which usually seats 12, while the rest filled the benches. Anyone not affiliated with the trial stood outside the courtroom until there was a seat available. 

The plaintiff, Ahmed Chahdi, sat upright next to his attorney, Robert Perry. In a white short-sleeve button-up shirt, Chahdi was a sharp contrast to defendant Jocelyn Mack, who wore a purple dress under a cheetah print fur coat. 

The two were in civil court for an incident that happened six years ago. Mack’s car collided with the wall of a convenience store where Chahdi worked as a cashier, according to Perry. Shelves fell on Chahdi and injured him. Now, Chahdi has sued Mack and another person for punitive damages. 

 When it was time for pretrial questioning, jury clerks passed sheets of questions to the attorneys.

“Does anyone know Judge [James] Hill? Anyone know any of the attorneys?” Perry rumbled, as he swiveled his chair to face the jurors, leaned back and crossed his legs. He held his papers in one hand and a pen in the other. 

Karen Briggs, in the second row of benches, slowly raised her hand. She wore jeans and a navy cable-knit sweater that matched the color of her mask. 

“You used to be my neighbor,” she said quietly. 

“I used to be your neighbor?” Perry repeated. Briggs nodded. 

“And I work with your wife,” Briggs added.  “She substitutes at my school.” 

Perry asked where she taught. He confirmed his wife works at the same school. 

But Briggs wasn’t finished: “And I taught your grandson.”

The room erupted into laughter. 

“All right, you did everything right then,” he responded, chuckling. 

Perry then asked if Briggs, as a juror, could be “fair and impartial.”

“I’ll be honest, I’m not sure,” she said. “It’s hard to separate knowing someone for me.” 

Perry deferred to the judge. “Ma’am, I think you can be fair, but I don’t want to push you into a compromising situation,” Hill said, and excused her from the case. She hurried from the room. 

Perry continued questioning the jurors, splitting his attention between the six in the jury box and the six on the benches. Mack often turned her head around to look at the jurors as they answered, but Chahdi did not.

Perry asked if anyone had sued someone or been sued. One man in the box, David Efird, raised his hand. Efird explained that as a partner at the law firm Womble Bond Dickinson, he had sued people on behalf of his clients. 

The next topic was car accidents — if anyone had been in one, caused one or knew someone who had been involved in one. And, Perry asked, had anyone ever experienced neck injuries or seen a chiropractor. 

The jurors were quiet and monotonous, but never annoyed. No heavy sighs or impatient whispers. Some even offered up details, like the date of a crash or where their chiropractor was located. 

After an hour, though, only 15 prospective jurors remained, and some grew restless. One man in the box rubbed his head and shifted around in his seat. A woman on a bench picked at her nails. Even Judge Hill alternated between staring into the benches and typing at his desktop computer, the glare of the screen reflecting on his face shield. 

Then, Macon Patton was called by the clerks to replace Jennifer Cameron, who could not serve on a jury in Durham County because she lives in Orange County. Patton rattled off responses to Perry’s previous questions. On his last answer, he pointed at Efird. 

“My wife works in the same firm as this lawyer here,” Patton said. 

“Do you know this man?” Perry asked again and motioned to Efird.

“I do not,” Patton said, shaking his head. 

“But I do know his wife,” Efird jumped in, and the three men chuckled. Neither attorney objected to Patton sitting on the jury as scattered, tired laughs bounced around the courtroom. 

Efird added: “It’s good to meet you.” 

 

A Courthouse Moment: ‘El Sueño Americano’

Fifteen years ago, Edelmar Arnoldo Borrayes Cifuentes immigrated from Guatemala to Cary, North Carolina. He got a job in construction, found a house, and made friends in his local Latino community. What he did not do was learn much, if any, English.

On this day, Cifuentes sits in a courtroom on the sixth floor of the Durham County Courthouse. He wears a black button down shirt with tiny white polka dots, jeans held up by a leather belt and a navy cloth mask. He appears to be in his 40s and has spiky black hair, hardened with gel. He’s short, shorter than his attorney, Aneta Yordanova Paval, who sits before him in the gallery in a maxi skirt and gray sweater. 

He’s here to fight for sole custody of his son, in a language he doesn’t understand, and the translator’s late.

A decade ago, attorneys had to formally request an interpreter weeks in advance. But a surge in demand in recent years prompted the courthouse to develop a better system. 

“Now, it’s like calling an Uber,” said trial court administrator Deneen Barrier. At least in theory.

Cifuentes is texting on his phone when Judge Amanda L. Maris calls his case. 

When he hears his name, he stands, shoves his phone in his jean pocket, and makes his way to the table at the front of the room. His son’s mother, who is supposed to be representing herself, is not present. In fact, she’s in Guatemala. 

As Cifuentes takes his seat, the translator bursts through the double doors and scurries over to his side. She wears a light blue dress and clutches a clipboard to her chest. Paval, relieved, calls Cifuentes to the witness stand. 

He walks cautiously to the front of the courtroom. 

“Please place your left hand on the Bible and raise your right,” the court clerk says, as though she’s said it thousands of times. (She has.)

Cifuentes, though, doesn’t know this string of words. But he sees a Bible in front of him and notices the bailiff motioning toward it, so he takes a guess as to what he should do: He picks it up with both hands.

The bailiff dashes over and grabs the book while the translator frantically whispers to Cifuentes, who runs a nervous hand through his shiny hair. He guessed wrong.

Once the bailiff replaces the Bible, and Cifuentes’ attorney helps to properly swear him in, Paval begins asking questions.

The translator jots furiously on her clipboard as Paval speaks, relaying sentences to Cifuentes before Paval has finished them. Amid the resulting overlap in voices, Cifuentes doesn’t know where to look. He settles for a spot on the gray carpet between the two women. 

Via a complicated game of telephone, the court learns that Cifuentes grew up in Guatemala. There he met his wife, Emilia Gomez Alvarado, and had his son, Bryan, whom he took care of until the boy was three. Then Cifuentes decided to fly to the United States solo to chase “El Sueño Americano.” The American Dream.

His family was supposed to join him after he built a life for the three of them. But, things didn’t go according to plan. In Guatemala, Alvarado neglected Bryan and left him at the age of 10.

Cifuentes describes the dangers his son had to face alone — the crime, the extortion, the gangs — in a raw, shaky tone. The translator repeats his message word for word, but her scripted monotone doesn’t quite capture the sorrow. 

This past June, when Bryan, who turns 18 in October, was finally able to leave Guatemala, Cifuentes saw his son for the first time in 15 years. He moved Bryan into his home, registered him for a local school, and now he wants custody over him. 

Paval is satisfied with her client’s testimony.

“No further questions, Your Honor,” she says.

“Okay, Mr. Cifuentes, you may step down,” Judge Maris replies.

There’s a moment of stillness while the translator relays the message. When Cifuentes walks back to the table, she follows behind him like a dutiful shadow.  

Then the telephone game resumes as Judge Maris states her ruling. Cifuentes stares at her, arms crossed over his chest. He watches her lips move as she says “I hereby grant sole legal and physical custody of the minor child, Bryan Gomez, to Mr. Cifuentes.”

Eyes in the sparsely filled gallery jump over to Cifuentes, expecting celebration. But he remains still. The translator has fallen behind, and she’s not yet repeated the ruling. Cifuentes is the last in the room to learn that he’s won the case. 

When he does, the moment for a dramatic reaction has passed. He stands, gives a gracious nod to the judge and heads out of the courtroom, leaving his shadow behind.

 

A Courthouse Moment: ‘Stuff we have to deal with every day’

At 8:53 a.m., a short, ragged line forms on the plaza of the Durham County Courthouse. Retractable ropes funnel arrivals toward the single entrance — a set of heavy metal doors reinforced with bolt-like cylinders. Three sheriff deputies stand guard on this sunny morning holding clipboards stacked with the day’s docket.

To reduce potential COVID-19 exposures, the deputies limit entry. On the docket? In. Victim? In. Witness? Wait outside until the judge calls your case.

Strict COVID-19 policies have remained consistent throughout the pandemic, reports Corporal Denon Gray, one of the three deputies who regularly guard the doors. Masks are required, and deputies conduct temperature checks. One by one, those in line are either waved through or turned away. 

We often imagine courtrooms, with their stately grandeur and mahogany benches, as the backdrop for our legal system’s most fraught moments. But the drama begins at these doors, through which every witness and relative, victim and offender,  guilty and innocent, pass each day. “Any issues out in the neighborhood or in the streets,’’ Gray says, “sooner or later it will make its way here.”

The ritual begins as usual. 

“What are you here for today?” says Deputy James Zagardo to the next person in line. “What’s your last name?”

 He pages through the docket to find the name.

And finally: “Have you been sick or around anyone with COVID-19 in the last two weeks?” 

A woman’s scream pierces the air.  

Gray pauses and peers past the concrete column in search of the source. After a moment of quiet, the interrogations rev up again. Then another angry scream, now clearly coming from a middle-aged woman emerging from the courthouse. 

Her bright purple hair only makes her more conspicuous as she pushes a shimmery purple walker out of the building. With a shout, she summons an older woman seated quietly on the bench outside.

“I’m going home!” she yells at the older woman standing a few feet in front of her. “Everything I own is ruined because of you!” 

In a rage, she throws items from her bag at the older woman’s feet. The older woman stands feebly, attempting to calm her purple-haired companion.

Those in the queue rubberneck momentarily, but the line quickly resumes its churn. “This is the stuff we have to deal with every day,” Gray says. 

Attorneys greet the deputies with a friendly nod and are whisked past, like courthouse VIPs skipping the bouncers. Some women click up in heels, others in biker shorts. One man swelters in a three-piece suit, while another dons a Grateful Dead T-shirt. 

At 9:10 a.m., two young men approach the deputies. The first, who is there to appear in court, wears a white polo tucked into torn black jeans. His companion, not attempting to impress, wears a looser green shirt with old blue jeans. 

After quietly stating his business to Zagardo, the man in white moves toward the doors. The man in green, meanwhile, waits outside. 

As the man in white is nearly through the door, Zagardo shouts, “Do you think you are going to be getting incarcerated [today]?”

The words fall with a thud. 

The man in white shrugs: “They said it was a possibility.”

The three men stand frozen. Their simple bureaucratic encounter has quickly become a farewell. 

Zagardo reassures the man in white that he will have the opportunity to contact his friend again. The deputy keeps looking back and forth between the two.

The friends stare at each other, silent. Zagardo offers, “I mean, if you want to give him property now just in case…” 

After pondering for a moment, the man in white utters a quiet, “No.”  

These doors will see no emotional goodbye today.